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The Lost Kristol Tapes: What the New York Times Bought

February 15, 2008

Jonathan Schwarz (Tomdispatch.com)

Imagine that there were a Beatles record only a few people knew existed. And imagine you got the chance to listen to it, and as you did, your excitement grew, note by note. You realized it wasn’t merely as good as Rubber Soul, or Revolver, or Sgt. Pepper’s. It was much, much better. And now, imagine how badly you’d want to tell other Beatles fans all about it.

That’s how I feel for my fellow William Kristol fans. You loved it when Bill said invading Iraq was going to have “terrifically good effects throughout the Middle East”? You have the original recording of him explaining the war would make us “respected around the world” and his classic statement that there’s “almost no evidence” of Iraq experiencing Sunni-Shia conflict? Well, I’ve got something that will blow your mind!

I’m talking about Kristol’s two-hour appearance on C-Span’s Washington Journal on March 28, 2003, just nine days after the President launched his invasion of Iraq. No one remembers it today. You can’t even fish it out of LexisNexis. It’s not there. Yet it’s a masterpiece, a double album of smarm, horrifying ignorance, and bald-faced deceit. While you’ve heard him play those instruments before, he never again reached such heights. It’s a performance for the history books — particularly that chapter about how the American Empire collapsed.

At the time Kristol was merely the son of prominent neoconservative Irving Kristol, former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle (aka “Quayle’s brain”), the editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard, and a frequent Fox News commentator. He hadn’t yet added New York Times columnist to his resumé. Opposite Kristol on the segment was Daniel Ellsberg, famed for leaking the Pentagon Papers in the Vietnam era. Their discussion jumped back and forth across 40 years of U.S.-Iraqi relations, and is easiest to understand if rearranged chronologically.

So, sit back, relax, and let me play a little of it for you.

To start with, Ellsberg made the reasonable point that Iraqis might not view the invading Americans as “liberators,” since the U.S. had been instrumental in Saddam Hussein’s rise to power: Here’s how he put it:

“ELLSBERG: People in Iraq… perceive Hussein as a dictator… But as a dictator the Americans chose for them.

“KRISTOL: That’s just not true. We’ve had mistakes in our Iraq policy. It’s just ludicrous — we didn’t choose Hussein. We didn’t put him in power.

“ELLSBERG: In 1963, when there was a brief uprising of the Ba’ath, we supplied specifically Saddam with lists, as we did in Indonesia, lists of people to be eliminated. And since he’s a murderous thug, but at that time our murderous thug, he eliminated them…

“KRISTOL: [surprised] Is that right?…

“ELLSBERG: The same thing went on in ’68. He was our thug, just as [Panamanian dictator Manuel] Noriega, and lots of other people who were on the leash until they got off the leash and then we eliminated them. Like [Vietnamese president] Ngo Dinh Diem.”

Ellsberg here is referring to U.S. support for a 1963 coup involving the Ba’athist party, for which Saddam was already a prominent enforcer — and then another coup in 1968 when the Ba’athists consolidated control, after which Saddam became the power behind the nominal president. According to one of the 1963 plotters, “We came to power on a CIA train.” (Beyond providing lists of communists and leftists to be murdered, the U.S. also gave the new regime napalm to help them put down a Kurdish uprising we’d previously encouraged.) James Crichtfield, then head of the CIA in the Middle East, said, “We really had the t’s crossed on what was happening” This turned out not to be quite right, since factional infighting among top Iraqis required the second plot five years later for which, explained key participant Abd al-Razzaq al-Nayyif, “you must [also] look to Washington.”

Yet it appears clear on video that Kristol is genuinely startled by what Ellsberg was saying.

Consider the significance of this. Any ordinary citizen could easily have learned about the American role in those two coups — former National Security Council staffer Roger Morris had written about it on the New York Times op-ed page just two weeks before the Kristol-Ellsberg broadcast. And Kristol was far more than an ordinary citizen. He’d been near the apex of government as Quayle’s chief of staff during the first Gulf War in 1991. He’d been advocating the overthrow of the Saddam regime for years. He’d co-written an entire book, The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission, calling for an invasion of that country.

Nevertheless, Kristol was ignorant of basic, critical information about U.S.-Iraq history. Iraqis themselves were not. In a September 2003 article, a returning refugee explained the growing resistance to the occupation: “One of the popular sayings I repeatedly heard in Baghdad, describing the relations between the U.S. and Saddam’s regime, is ‘Rah el sani’, ija el ussta’ — ‘Gone is the apprentice, in comes the master.'”

What this suggests about the people running America is far worse than if they were simply malevolent super-geniuses: They don’t know the backstory and couldn’t care less. It’s as though we’re riding in the back seat of a car driven by people who demanded the wheel but aren’t sure what the gas pedal does or what a stop sign actually looks like.

Moreover, when Ellsberg tells Kristol this information, he demonstrates no desire to learn more; nor, as best as can be discovered, has he ever mentioned it again. Really? Those colored lights mean something about whether I’m supposed to stop or go? Huh. Anyway, let’s talk more about how all of you complaining in the back seat hate freedom.

Later, when the discussion gets closer to the present. Kristol’s demeanor changes. He appears to be better informed and therefore shifts to straightforward lies:

“ELLSBERG: Why did we support Saddam as recently as when you were in the administration? And the answer is–

“KRISTOL: We didn’t support Saddam when I was in the administration.

“ELLSBERG: When were you in the administration?

“KRISTOL: 89 to 93.”

This is preposterously false. First of all, Kristol worked in the Reagan administration as Education Secretary William Bennett’s chief of staff — when the U.S. famously supported Saddam’s war against Iran with loans, munitions, intelligence, and diplomatic protection for his use of chemical weapons. After George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988, Kristol moved to the same position in Vice President Quayle’s office. During the transition, Bush’s advisors examined the country’s Iraq policy and wrote a memo explaining to the incoming President the choice he faced. In a nutshell, this was “to decide whether to treat Iraq as a distasteful dictatorship to be shunned when possible, or to recognize Iraq’s present and potential power in the region and accord it relatively high priority. We strongly urge the latter view.”

And Bush chose. Internal State Department guidelines from the period stated, “In no way should we associate ourselves with the 60 year-old Kurdish rebellion in Iraq or oppose Iraq’s legitimate attempts to suppress it.” (Saddam’s gassing of the Kurdish town of Halabja has occurred less than a year before.) Analysts warning of Iraq’s burgeoning nuclear program were squelched. The Commerce Department loosened restrictions on dual-use WMD material, while Bush the elder approved new government lines of credit for Saddam over congressional objections.

And Saddam was receiving private money as well: most notably from the Atlanta branch of Italian bank BNL…

READ MORE HERE.

Jonathan Schwarz is a frequent contributor to Mother Jones and co-author with Michael Gerber of Our Kampf, a collection of their humor from the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and Saturday Night Live. His website is named after a saying of George Orwell’s: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”

Copyright 2008 Jonathan Schwarz

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